Why public special education programs are flopping in NYC

Compiled by Eric Schulzke, Deseret News National Edition

Published: Wed, July 30, 2014, 5:05 a.m. MDT

 Sixth grader Hannah Gilbert received an award from Michael Styles of the office of Ethnic Affairs. Hannah won the \

Sixth grader Hannah Gilbert received an award from Michael Styles of the office of Ethnic Affairs. Hannah won the "I have a dream" Martin Luther king Jr. essay contest. Hannah has Down Syndrome and her essay was named "My Dream" in which she says that she wants others to treat kids with special needs the same way they would treat everyone.

(Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News)

New York is not alone, but as with most things, the numbers there are bigger. The New York Times reports that the city is now spending $200 million on private schools for special education. Critics argue that this is sapping the city's ability to provide special education in mainstream schools, let alone regular education.

“The more money that is diverted out of the system to pay for private school education for youngsters the smaller school budgets are,” Eric Nadelstern, a former deputy schools chancellor who is now a professor at Teachers College at Columbia University, told The New York Times.

Similar conflicts have occurred in Washington, D.C., where mayor Vincent Gray has scrapped with special education advocates as he clamped down on private placement to save money, The Washington Post reported in 2013.

And in New Jersey, The Star-Ledger did extensive reporting last fall, finding that the open-ended court-ordered checkbooks for private schools for the severely disabled has leant itself to corruption and graft.

"In an era when public schools are under intense pressure to do more with less," NJ.com reported of the state's private special ed sector, "the newspaper’s review showed nepotism, high executive salaries, generous pensions, fancy cars and questionable business deals are common in parts of this more than $600 million New Jersey industry."

Parents are routinely suing the city to secure private placement for their disabled children, who they believe are not getting an adequate schooling in the mainstream schools. Often they win, but they do sometimes lose.

“The court does not begrudge the parents’ desire to place their child in the school that they believe is best,” wrote Judge Valerie E. Caproni in rejecting one parent request, the Times reported. “But the law does not guarantee disabled children — or, for that matter, gifted or normally talented children — the best education that money can buy.”

The dispute is over what exactly Congress meant in 1990 when it passed and George H.W. Bush signed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act that guarantees a "free and appropriate public education," or FAPE, to children with disabilities. If the schools can't provide that in a public setting, the Supreme Court ruled in 2009, then the statute requires that they pay for private education.

But no one is quite sure what the contours of FAPE at either extreme. When is a kid so handicapped that the state can draw limits on how much it spends to educate him or her? And when is a handicap mild enough that the state can provide adequate education in the regular school?

As with just about anything in American policy, these questions end up in court.

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Email: eschulzke@desnews.com

1. peeannie
west jordan, UT,
July 30, 2014

I believe our common sense has gone out the window when it comes to educating special needs. My friends' child is severely handicapped. She will never speak, walk or 'contribute' to mainstream society. Her district picks her up at her home and busses her over 70 blocks to the school. She attends class all day and is bussed back to her home. There is a 4:1 student/teacher ratio. She is gone longer than a traditional student. She has summer school which does the same thing on a shortened time frame. If education is to produce our next generation of 'workers', why are we spending probably 10 times the amount of money vs. an 'average' student to educate someone who will never improve or benefit from this 'education'? It's glorified babysitting except the parents don't even have the responsibility of getting them there. There needs to be much more critical criteria that determines who gets these benefits. Some special needs children benefit, many do not, nor ever will. Move these children under the social services umbrella. Provide reduced cost special needs day care but do not call it an education and take money away from our school districts.

2. birder
Salt Lake City, UT,
July 30, 2014

Most of the special ed funding comes from the federal government. Once again, "your tax dollars at work." With over 32 years in the public school system, I can tell you that vast amounts of money and resources are put into schooling and supervision for students who will never become productive members of society. I believe these students can make some progress, and they should receive reasonable services. However, it is done at the expense of the middle and higher students who will actually become the movers and shakers of the next generation. I have always felt that our more able students are as deserving of school resources as our struggling and intellectually disabled students.

With teachers' pay now being tied to test scores (and the disabled students' scores are lumped in with the rest, lowering the overall class averages), the unfairness of the entire system will only be amplified.